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LATIN AMERICA: More Education and Cash Transfers Needed to Fight Inequality

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 1 2010 (IPS) - As the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean get back on track with the economic growth and poverty reduction they were achieving prior to the global economic crisis, improvements in education and cash transfers to households with children are emerging as key tools to begin to defeat inequality.

“In every country in the region, there has been heated debate about education reform for years, but in terms of quality, next to nothing has been achieved,” Martín Hopenhayn, head of the social development division at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), told IPS.

The education policies adopted by governments in the region have failed “to reduce the learning gaps” between children from poor and non-poor homes, rural and urban households, and indigenous and non-indigenous families, the expert stressed after Tuesday’s launch of ECLAC’s Social Panorama of Latin America 2010 report.

“On average in the region, 49 percent of men and 55 percent of women aged 20-24 have completed secondary education, while in rural areas the figures are 26 percent of men and 31 percent of women, and 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively, among indigenous people of that age,” says the report.

But the ECLAC report, which was presented at the United Nations regional agency’s Santiago headquarters, stresses that “education is one of the main factors that can undo inequalities of origin (family or territory based) and provide equal opportunities for lifetime well-being and productivity for society as a whole.”

Among ECLAC’s concrete recommendations are: expanding early childhood education coverage, lengthening the primary school day and incorporating digital technologies into education to ensure universal access to computer skills.

Improving the quality of public school education and closing the gap that separates it from private education is also an urgent matter.

Similarly, ECLAC proposes increasing access to higher education by students from low-income families, and supporting families with children by means of conditional cash transfer programmes that ensure that children finish their school education.

“In many Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, consumption by persons aged 0- 19 is met almost equally by public and family transfers, but the average state transfer component in Latin America does not exceed 20 percent for this age group,” the study says.

In terms of redistributive measures governments should take to combat inequality, ECLAC proposes three types throughout people’s life cycles.

The first is “a scheme of cash transfers to households with children aged 0-14 to improve the opportunities for families to have an appropriate environment for the socialisation of children (nutrition, housing, clothing).”

Secondly, “financing policies to cover the costs of incorporating those who are not covered by educational and care services (0-17 years).”

Lastly, “another series of cash transfers related to employment and training services targeting young people in the process of joining adult life (15-24 years).”

Hopenhayn cited, as an example, “the universal child benefit introduced in Argentina a year ago” by the centre-left government of President Cristina Fernández.

“The three kinds of transfers proposed would, combined, have a substantial absolute impact on poverty,” the study says. “For example, the poverty rate would fall from 61.8 percent to 34.6 percent in Nicaragua and from 45.7 percent to 29.9 percent in Guatemala.”

For some countries like Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, the additional costs of these extra efforts are manageable for a short period of time, and represent about two percent of GDP, ECLAC says.

“Other countries are in an intermediate position, for example Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. They need to make a greater effort because their tax revenue is low, and they need to maintain a high rate of growth,” said Hopenhayn.

“Then there are poorer countries, like Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, which would need to increase the tax burden and mobilise international cooperation resources,” he said.

Improving educational quality and equity are two major challenges in Chile, a country in the throes of a new education reform under rightwing President Sebastián Piñera, who took office in March after 20 years of government by the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy.

The Piñera administration proposes the creation of “schools of excellence” at secondary education level, efforts to draw the best students into teaching careers, an improvement in teachers’ salaries, an increase in the time spent on language and mathematics at the cost of history lessons, and greater autonomy for the principals of public schools.

“You cannot have quality without equality, and in Chile we have the most unequal results in the world, according to the OECD, because we have the most segmented educational system,” Rodrigo Cornejo of the Chilean Observatory of Educational Policy at the state University of Chile told IPS.

In Cornejo’s view, Piñera’s plans are just “for show,” because they do not attack the root of the problem, which is the high degree of segmentation of the Chilean system into public municipal schools, state-subsidised schools co- financed by parents’ fees, and completely private schools.

The good news from ECLAC’s Social Panorama of Latin America is that the poverty rate will fall by one percentage point in 2010, from 33.1 percent in 2009 to 32.1 percent of the regional population, leaving 180 million people below the poverty line.

Extreme poverty is predicted to fall by 0.4 percentage points, a reduction from 74 to 72 million people.

This is due to counter-cyclic employment and social measures taken by Latin American and Caribbean countries to weather the international recession that originated in the United States in 2008.

According to 2009 statistics, one of the most complicated situations is that of Paraguay, where 56 percent of the population is living below the poverty line, and 30 percent are extremely poor.

Other countries with highly vulnerable populations are El Salvador, with a poverty rate of 47.9 percent and an extreme poverty rate of 17.3 percent, Ecuador, with rates of 40.2 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively, Colombia, with rates of 45.7 and 16.5 percent, and the Dominican Republic, with 41.1 percent and 21 percent of the population living in poverty and extreme poverty.

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